“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13).
How could Jesus have called Matthew, named Levi in Mark and Luke, to be part of his inner circle and then how could he eat with sinners? Matthew is a tax collector. Tax collectors were, at the least, believed to be collecting money over and above, skimming off the top, the allotted prescribed taxes and at worst, they were considered to be in collusion with the occupying power of Rome. Not only were they considered unethical and unclean, tax collectors were in league with the enemy! And Jesus is sitting down and eating with THEM!!!
In quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus was drawing reference to the growing Pharisaic influence to aspire to and take on the ritual purity status of the priests sacrificing at the Temple. To be in favor with the religious leadership, to be accepted as part of the religious community, one had to follow certain prescriptions and practices, otherwise be recognized as unclean and while in that state, one did not belong to the community. Sharing table fellowship was a measure of that social construct, so if one was unclean, they were to eat alone.
Jesus would have none of that. Jesus sought to enter into relationship with anyone who was willing, even those who were considered unclean, on the outside, and/or the peripheries. He loved people then and loves us today for who we are and as we are, a beloved child of God. There is no THEM or OTHER for Jesus! He bestowed and bestows his mercy, love, and healing first, as the starting point of any relationship. Jesus calls us to a better and more fulfilling life now, so that it may carry over into eternity. He accepted and accepts people first, builds relationships first, then continues to walk with us, to empower us to be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48).
The bar of perfection is indeed high, higher than that of the Pharisees; the difference is that Jesus’ mercy, his willingness to enter into the chaos of another, is higher. Jesus meets us in our imperfections, sin, and weaknesses. He enters through our door, but he does not want us to stay there, he wants us to exit out of his door by becoming fully alive.
Jesus’ teachings are hard, and when we fall he does not kick us in the teeth and cast us aside. He lays down, right in the muck and mire with us. Face to face, he wipes the dirt and tears from our eyes, offers his hand, and helps us to continue on our journey to see and experience that which is good, true, and beautiful in our lives.
No matter what we are dealing or struggling with, know that Jesus loves each and every one of us more than we can ever mess up and he does not define us by our worst choices and acts. God forgives and heals as many times as we are willing to go to him. Sometimes when we feel stuck, indecisive, and immobile, we just need to remember to accept Jesus’ invitation, arise as did Matthew in today’s Gospel, and walk with him. Step by step, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will be transformed as we grow and mature, which is messy because life is messy.
As we experience our healing moments in the midst of our chaos, may we also be understanding of and willing to enter into the chaos of others and allow God to forgive, heal, and love through us.
Painting: The Calling of St Matthew – Caravaggio, 1600